The Boss Who Fought for the Working Class

by Walter Brasch

He was born into poverty in New Hampshire in 1811.

His father was a struggling farmer. His mother did most of the other chores.

He was a brilliant student, but the family often moved, looking for a better life-a couple of times so the father could avoid being put into debtor’s prison.

At the age of 15, he dropped out of school and became a printer’s apprentice, sending much of his wages to help his family.

For several years, he worked as an apprentice and then as a printer, his hands covered by ink, his body ingesting the chemicals of that ink.

He worked hard, saved money, helped others achieve their political dreams, became the editor of newspapers, and soon became an owner.

In the two decades leading to the Civil War, Horace Greeley had become one of the most powerful and influential men in America. His newspaper, the New York Tribune, was the nation’s largest circulation newspaper.

But instead of becoming even richer, he used his newspaper as a call for social action. For social justice.

In 1848, as a congressman fulfilling the last three months of the term of an incumbent who was removed from office, Greeley introduced legislation to end flogging in the Navy, argued for a transcontinental railroad, and introduced legislation to allow citizens to purchase at a reduced price land in unsettled territories as long as they weren’t speculators and promised to develop the land.

The Homestead Act, which Congress finally passed 13 years later, helped the indigent, unemployed, and others to help settle the American west and Midwest.

But in his three months in office he also became universally hated by almost everyone elected to Congress. The social reformer in his soul had pointed out numerous ethical and criminal abuses by members of Congress; his party didn’t ask him to run for a full term.

He called for all American citizens-Blacks and women included-to be given the rights of the vote.

In 1854, Greeley became one of the founders of the Republican party. For more than two decades, he had been a strong abolitionist and now the new political party would make the end of slavery one of its founding principles. He was one of the main reasons why his friend, Abraham Lincoln, whom he helped become president, finally relented and two years after the civil war began, finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation.

More than 225,000 Americans (of a nation of about 35 million) bought his relatively objective and powerful history of the civil war, making the book one of the best-sellers in the nation’s nine decade history. In today’s sales, that would be about two million copies.

Unlike some editors who pandered to the readers and advertisers, he maintained a separation of editorial and advertising departments, and demanded the best writers and reporters, no matter what their personal opinions were. Among those he hired were Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Karl Marx. And at a time when newsrooms were restricted to men, he hired Margaret Fuller to be his literary editor.

He believed in a utopian socialism, where all people helped each other, and where even the most unskilled were given the opportunity to earn a living wage.

He demanded that all workers be treated fairly and with respect. In 1851, he founded a union for printers.

When his employees said they didn’t need a union because their boss paid them well and treated them fairly, he told them that only in a union could the workers continue to be treated decently, that they had no assurances that some day he might not be as decent and generous as he was that day. The union was for their benefit, the benefit of their families, and their profession, he told them.

In 1872, Horace Greeley ran for the presidency, nominated on both the Democrat and Liberal Republican tickets. But, his opposition was U.S. Grant, the war hero running for re-election on an establishment Republican ticket.

Weeks before the electoral college met, Horace Greeley, who lost the popular vote, died, not long after his wife.

The printers, the working class, erected monuments in his honor.

And everyone knew that the man with a slight limp, who usually dressed not as a rich man but as a farmer coming into town to buy goods, who greeted everyone as a friend, who could have interesting conversations with everyone from the illiterate to the elite, was a man worthy of respect, even if they disagreed with his views. For most, Horace Greeley was just a bit too eccentric, his ideas just too many decades ahead of their time.

On this Labor Day weekend, when not one Republican candidate for president believes in unions, when CEOs often make more than 100 times what their workers earn, when millionaires and billionaires running for office pretend they are populists, when even many in the working class seem more comfortable supporting the policies and political beliefs of the elite, the nation needs to reflect upon the man who knew that without the workers, there would be no capitalism.

[Dr. Brasch has been a member of several crafts, arts, and trade labor unions. He proudly sees himself not as among the elite but as a part of the working class. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster]

 

Labor Must Counter Balance Corporate Power

On this Labor Day organized labor is more threatened than at any time in my life.  Blamed for our economic ills stupid people forget it was Wall Street and Organized Capital that collapsed the economy driven by greed and short minded selfishness.  Ayn Rand’s philosophy of Objectionism makes everyone out only for themselves.  Organized Labor, by its very nature, rejects that credo by bringing the power of thousands of individuals together to forge progress for all.

Today we celebrate those victories, reflect on the past and warn everyone of the future.  The War on Workers began in Wisconsin and spread across many states where conservatives gained control of government.  Right to Work laws which really mean the right to work for less threaten everyone’s wages.  Wages are at their lowest levels since 1947 because organized labor is at its lowest level in decades.  Power exists with corporations because they’ve taken it from workers through legislation.  When you vote Republican you vote against your own financial interests.  You vote to reduce your income and gut your retirement.  If gay marriage, abortion and endless wars mean more to you than your own survival you get what you deserve.

Workers fought and died for the right to organize.  From our own Molly Maguires to the massacres at factories a hundred years ago Robber Barons have sought to limit the power of the people to organize.  They are doing it again and Romney/Ryan will continue these attacks.  Wisconsin became the storm center of the anti-worker movement and they want to spread their poison all over the nation.  Labor finally took a stand this week and refused to attend the Democratic National Convention when spineless Party leaders chose to host the event in right to work for less state North Carolina.

Unions brought us the weekend, eight hour work days, sick days, vacations, retirement pensions, health care benefits, the minimum wage, overtime, safe workplaces, child labor laws, unemployment compensation and created a middle class.  Which part of that don’t you like and appreciate when you bash unions?  No it wasn’t easy and sometimes force was used to forge progress just as force was used to thwart these gains.  Corporations employ many more thugs to bust unions, kill workers and threaten families than any union has to protect them.

There is no capital without labor.  It is the product of labor and we must remember that for an accumulation of capital someone labored to make it.  As Abraham Lincoln said “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”  Progressive Republican Teddy Roosevelt reminded us that organization is the key:  “It is essential that there should be organization of labor. This is an era of organization. Capital organizes and therefore labor must organize.”

If corporations can engage in capitalism then so can workers and that s the essence of organized labor:  the power gained by capitalizing on the collective efforts of all to counter balance the tyranny of Capital.  John Locke said “All wealth is the product of labor.”  If we allow unions to be decimated we all suffer.  Newt Gingrich and others on the presidential campaign trial even called for the abolition of child labor laws this year.  They’re coming for your health care and all the rest of the gains of the Twentieth Century will fall thereafter if we’re not careful.

You’re responsible for your own vote, make it count for something positive.

Out with Austerity Economics, In With a ‘Moral Economy’

A blog post from Stephen Herzenberg, originally published on Third and State.

We released our annual State of Working Pennsylvania at the Keystone Research Center today.

Bottom line: the report shows that the economy is limping along and our job market is broken. State and federal policies driven by austerity economics are increasing joblessness, sparking greater economic inequality and undercutting American values.

With working families still struggling in this weak economy, we make the case for an alternative approach that focuses directly on job creation and building a stronger economy. We’re calling this new direction a “moral economy” – one that is more competitive economically and supports American values.

Creating a “moral economy” isn’t that hard. It means establishing conditions in which our most dynamic companies can thrive and multiply and enforcing some basic rules (e.g., labor and environmental standards) so that companies can’t compete in ways that harm workers and communities. “Paving the high road and blocking the low road” is the key to unleashing American ingenuity on a larger scale, creating a stronger economy and a more robust middle class.

Some of the immediate steps we need to take to strengthen our economy include:

  • Continuing extended federal unemployment benefits through 2012 as families continue to struggle in this weak economy;
  • Providing more federal aid to state and local governments to prevent public-sector layoffs from undercutting a rebound in private employment;
  • Investing in infrastructure and school construction at a time when costs are low and we can get more bang for the buck; and
  • Modernizing our unemployment system to help out-of-work people strengthen their skills and better contribute to the economy.

We’ll have more to say about the State of Working Pennsylvania report next week. In the meantime, take it with you this weekend for a little Labor Day reading.

‘Young Workers: A Lost Decade’

(I had this story bookmarked to do but since this is such a good diary I’ll just promote it to the front page.

John – promoted by John Morgan)

Something bad happened in the past 10 years to young workers in this country: Since 1999, more of them now have lower-paying jobs, if they can get a job at all; health care is a rare luxury and retirement security is something for their parents, not them. In fact, many-younger than 35-still live at home with their parents because they can’t afford to be on their own.

These are the findings of a new report, “Young Workers: A Lost Decade.” Conducted in July 2009 by Peter D. Hart Research Associates for the AFL-CIO and our community affiliate Working America, the nationwide survey of 1,156 people follows up on a similar survey the AFL-CIO conducted in 1999. The deterioration of young workers’ economic situation in those 10 years is alarming.

Nate Scherer, 31, is among today’s young workers. Scherer lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he shares a home with his wife, his parents, brother and his partner.  He spoke at a media conference at the AFL-CIO today to discuss the report.

After getting married, my wife and I decided to move in with my parents to pay off our bills. We could afford to live on our own but we’d never be able to get out of debt. We have school loans to pay off, too. We’d like to have children, but we just can’t manage the expense of it right now…so we’re putting it off till we’re in a better place. My [work] position is on the edge, and I feel like if my company were to cut back, my position would be one of the first to go.

During yesterday’s press briefing, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka summed up the report’s findings this way:

We’re calling the report “A Lost Decade” because we’re seeing 10 years of opportunity lost as young workers across the board are struggling to keep their heads above water and often not succeeding. They’ve put off adulthood-put off having kids, put off education-and a full 34 percent of workers under 35 live with their parents for financial reasons.

Just last week we learned that about 1.7 million fewer teenagers and young adults were employed in July than a year before, hitting a record low of 51.4 percent.

As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said:  

Young workers in particular must be given the tools to lead the next generation to prosperity. The national survey we’re releasing today shows just how broken our economy is for our young people…and what’s at stake if we don’t fix it.

Some of the report’s key findings include:

  • 31 percent of young workers report being uninsured, up from 24 percent 10 years ago, and 79 percent of the uninsured say they don’t have coverage because they can’t afford it or their employer does not offer it.
  • Strikingly, one in three young workers are currently living at home with their parents.
  • Only 31 percent say they make enough money to cover their bills and put some money aside-22 percentage points fewer than in 1999-while 24 percent cannot even pay their monthly bills.
  • A third cannot pay their bills and seven in 10 do not have enough saved to cover two months of living expenses.
  • 37 percent have put off education or professional development because they can’t afford it.
  • When asked who is most responsible for the country’s economic woes, close to 50 percent of young workers place the blame on Wall Street and banks or corporate CEOs. And young workers say greed by corporations and CEOs is the factor most to blame for in the current financial downturn.
  • By a 22-point margin, young workers favor expanding public investment over reducing the budget deficit. Young workers rank conservative economic approaches such as reducing taxes, government spending and regulation on business among the five lowest of 16 long-term priorities for Congress and the president.
  • Thirty-five percent say they voted for the first time in 2008, and nearly three-quarters now keep tabs on government and public affairs, even when there’s not an election going on.
  • The majority of young workers and nearly 70 percent of first-time voters are confident that Obama will take the country in the right direction.

Trumka, who is running for AFL-CIO president without announced opposition at our convention later this month, is making union outreach to young people a top priority. He said one of the report’s conclusions is especially striking:

Young people want to be involved but they’re rarely asked. Their priorities are even more progressive than the priorities of the older generation of working people, yet they aren’t engaged by co-workers or friends to get involved in the economic debate.

Currently, 18-to-35-year-olds make up a quarter of union membership. And at the AFL-CIO Convention, we will ask Convention delegates to approve plans for broad recruitment of young workers, as well as plans for training and leadership of young workers who are currently union members. And that’s just the beginning of a broad push towards talking and mobilizing young workers in the coming months and years.

According to the report, more than half of young workers say employees are more successful getting problems resolved as a group rather than as individuals, and employees who have a union are better off than employees in similar jobs who do not.

Read the full report here.

(Cross-posted from the AFL-CIO Now Blog.)